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Winning your high, failing your exam
Short story


October 11, 2005

When the review lecture ended, Nicholas knew that he would be playing catch-up for the rest of the semester; he was going to bomb the first exam. There was nothing he could do about it. Experience had taught him that there was simply no way that he could master the information he had blown off for a month in the fourteen hours before testing began; on top of it being impossible to retain all those facts and concepts, he still had to get some sleep and go to his morning calculus recitation.

Outside it was a warm and breezy evening. Girls were still walking around with spaghetti strap tops and shoes that showed off their pedicures, and their laughter was still audible and uncontained, like it was during the beginning of the summer. Even if he had grave thoughts on his mind, he reasoned, at least he was enjoying a pleasant walk home. Then he felt the weight of the binder full of useless notes in his hand and looked down at it, feeling a resignedly bitter gaze strain his face.

When he made it to the intersection, his attention shifted from the binder and trained on a bus, which made a wide left turn and then roared down the street. The exhaust fumes blasted from the engine lifted up the dead leaves from the asphalt, carried them a few feet, and then gently set them down again. It was time to figure out a plan, and fast. Nothing came to mind. He decided then and there that the best course of action would be to call the effort a loss and get stoned. Since he had first tried marijuana, he had experienced many priceless weed moments: amazing conversations, penetrating music, delicious food, side-splitting laughter, and intimate moments with Mother Nature. On this ignoble night of his life, he would just get high and hang out.

Nicholas made it up to his apartment, tossed his notes on the table, and sank into the couch. He grabbed his Altoids tin from out of his right pocket and found the remote control in between the couch cushions. Setting the tin on his stomach, he turned on the TV, switching through all the channels twice before he finally settled for Scola Uzbekistan. Although he wasn't sure why, there were several programs on Scola that he secretly liked to watch, despite the unfailing incredulity of all other kids his age who witnessed him do so. He chalked it up to hearing the different languages and seeing the different people.

This program was a muted news report of some kind in the mountains, the scenes alternating between a bundled-up female reporter standing at the mouth of a valley, a few men climbing a rocky pass, and still photographs of Uzbek and Russian politicians. It was a program that he could pack a bowl to, and he did exactly that. He popped open the mint tin turned weed container, immediately sensing the powerful aroma of weed in his nostrils. Nicholas took out the plastic sandwich bag inside, rolled it open, and fished out his polished white ceramic pipe. After shaking the loose herb on the pipe back into the bag, Nicholas proceeded to pinch a piece of bud and some shake together and press it into the bowl of the pipe with his thumb. He continued filling his little pipe with what was old, dry, but strong herb.

The first hit was hard to keep down and it dizzied him a little, but it was the second one that sent him coughing off into space, silence, and the realm of television. The channel surfing had begun. It took Nicholas a moment to find something that grabbed him, but once he got settled in with something visually intriguing, anything that came out of that box captivated him. Camera angles, background music, stage setups, everything came to life and jostled for the audience: him.

It was the people and the sounds, however, which got the lion's share of his attention. The palpable hums, bleats, and blare of voices, the stories, unspoken sentiments, and history in the words uttered by the voices, the creases and wrinkles of skin in the faces, the overdone, hollow laughs and the few genuine ones, the fake and real breasts and noses and eyebrows and other hunks of flesh on display, the colors and sounds and radiating aura that simply and uncompromisingly declared themselves to be television, these entertained him even as they tried unceasingly, maliciously, to pull something vital from him into the black hole of reality shows and endless chains of commercials. He was all too aware of the scheme, and he used it to his advantage.

Sunken securely into the couch like he was, Nicholas could fill his brain with intellectual gem after gem in front of the most aimlessly mundane programming just by thinking about how it came to be aimlessly mundane programming. In time, however, the high would fall from its pinnacle, and Nicholas would become a skeptically high guy, wondering, no, knowing that he could have spent his time better, and thinking now with his teeth in his lower lip about what excuse he could deceive himself with if he fucked up his exam tomorrow.

Nicholas' realm of hanging out and TV sank into confusion, paranoia, and the bluntly absurd. Watching television became a race against commercials, flipping from one show to another and then back again, and then a few channels over, each and every time the image faded out and that moment of silence heralding the coming pointlessness broke the TV's din. His cellphone rang, but being completely unprepared to talk to anyone, he switched it to silent without taking it out of his pocket. The damage had been done, however.

Those few seconds of ringing plied him into thinking that perhaps he would have to speak to somebody at some point, and how it was uncharacteristic of him to be laid out (when did I lay down?) on the couch watching television like he was. Oh man, he thought, are you really being this damn insecure? Hanging out and watching TV is Œuncharacteristic' of you? When did that happen? He had never pictured himself playing a role like that, and he wasn't about to now. So he sat up with new resolve, and seeing that Uzbekistan was long gone, he flipped though a few more channels. But it also occurred to him that he questioned himself while high much more than he usually did while sober. These are just weed thoughts. You know you're not interested in TV anymore. Turn it off.

He did, and the act of turning it off asserted its death grip on his high; he was just disoriented and aloof now. He stood up and yawned, giving his body a good stretch, standing on his toes with his arms straightened out and moving his neck from side to side to let it crack and pop, hugging his shoulders the way he would when he was warming up for basketball. What was it time to do? He saw his notes sitting on the table and knew in his heart that he had failed another test of adult responsibility. Add that one to the loss column. In his failure, however, he found that he now had a new purpose in life, one that would demand his willpower, wits, and intellect for as long as he could stay awake: damage control. Forget sleep, forget the calculus recitation; those kinds of things would always be there for him to take care of later. It was never too late to repent one's sins, was it? He opened a window to let the breeze begin its cleansing of the room.

For letters section
Maziar Shirazi

Maziar Shirazi




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